His disdain for materialism and the trappings of wealth has been subversive.
- May 21, 2016
- CBR - Economics
His disdain for materialism and the trappings of wealth has been subversive.
Anderson Cooper: I read one of your daughters say that, if you had a car, or if they sold cars with manual locks on windows, that’s the kind of car you would get. So what kind of car do you actually have?
Bernie Sanders: I have a small Chevrolet. It is one of the smallest Chevys that they make.
Anderson Cooper: Do you know what year it’s from?
Bernie Sanders: Yeah, it’s about five years old.
Anderson Cooper: OK, not bad.
Bernie Sanders: A red car. [Laughter] Pretty good on mileage.
—CNN New Hampshire Town Hall (February 3, 2016)
Bernie Sanders will not be president. He won’t even get the Democratic nomination. But his candidacy is the most subversive, and important, of the 2016 US presidential election.
Let me explain by way of an anecdote.
You can actually still buy a car with manual locks. Manual windows, too. I know this because my parents got one—a little ocean-blue Ford Focus, sensibly shorn of amenities—at nearly the same time Bernie’s Chevy first rolled off the lot.
They bought the car only after my father’s Ford Escort finally gave up the ghost after two decades of service and nearly 300,000 miles. My mother took a fatalistic view of the purchase. “This is it,” she announced, “the last car we will ever buy!”—a declaration consistent with her sensibility as a consumer, which is less Madison Avenue than American Gothic, if still a little unnerving to her children, considering their Mom and Dad were only in their 60s.
Prudent as my parents’ purchasing habits may be—they could afford a fancier car if they liked—not everyone in the family is enamored of their frugality, and no one less so than my mother’s sister, who, until she retired, was a partner at a big Wall Street investment bank. Choices such as my parents’ fidelity to their car tend to flummox and infuriate her. Pointing out that my parents love their “little Focus” fails to satisfy her objections, as does noting that the car has never failed in what would seem to be its primary function, getting passengers from Point A to Point B. When her disapproval is probed (especially by an irksome nephew), my aunt’s ultimate response is less a cogent argument than a cri de coeur, one that recalls the miserable protest of King Lear when his dreadful daughters want to deprive him of his entourage as needlessly ornamental. “O, reason not the need!” Lear cries.
Our basest beggars
Are in the poorest thing superfluous.
Allow not nature more than nature needs,
Man’s life’s as cheap as beast’s.
Lear’s reply takes one beyond a debate about what constitutes an absolute necessity. Strictly speaking, he needs royal attendants no more than my parents need power windows. But that he might bristle at the loss, or my aunt at the omission, points to another, more elusive need: dignity.
In one of my favorite passages from The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith takes up what commodities qualify as “necessaries of life.” By that phrase, he says, he doesn’t mean only goods that “are indispensably necessary for the support of life,” but also those which it is “indecent” to be without. The example he provides is a linen shirt. “[I]n the present times, through the greater part of Europe, a creditable day-labourer would be ashamed to appear in public without a linen shirt,” he says, “the want of which would be supposed to denote [a] disgraceful degree of poverty.” It wasn’t always that way—the “Greeks and Romans lived, I suppose, very comfortably, though they had no linen”—but the requirements of dignity are always a matter of custom and, as such, vary across time and space. The Southern belle is more keenly deprived than the Soho sophisticate if she fails to be invited to a debutante ball, and the engagement ring much envied in Muncie might elicit malicious grins in Malibu.
The requirements of dignity weigh heavily on students at Chicago Booth, who, of course, constitute their own community. When we discuss the passage from Smith in my business-ethics class, they volunteer their own examples of the linen shirts they can’t live without.
Near the top of this list is out-of-town trips with classmates. Students afford themselves “long weekends” by creative scheduling and a dash of truancy, but school breaks make for more-extravagant expeditions, featuring stops in multiple countries and excursions that smack less of youth hostel than haute couture. Recalling a student from Scotland who seemed slightly disapproving of this practice when she took my class in her first quarter, I checked in to see whether, 15 months later, her opinion had changed. While admitting that she had skipped many of these outings during her first year, she assured me that she was “making up for it,” a redemptive effort that included “spring break just south of Cancun and [a] slightly classier portion in Cuba,” the planning for which, she felt compelled to add, sometimes precluded studying for finals.
Another requirement is the decadent group dinner, a weekend ritual for full-time MBA students and fodder for Monday morning Facebook feeds. Chicago is rife with first-rate restaurants, and students who very well spent their college years with Domino’s on speed-dial soon succumb to demi-glace and the enticements of farm-to-table fare. Among the budding gourmands who take my classes, the 22-course tasting menu at Alinea is often described as their great white whale. The pursuit is not without peril, of course. As one student said of his fellow Ahabs, they’ll gladly share snapshots of the Black Truffle Explosion, but never the three weeks of oatmeal they ate so they could actually afford it.
More a caveat than a corrective, the observation is a reminder that, even if the best things in life are free, the “good life” ain’t cheap. Students are not insensitive to this fact. As many of them see it, there is a price to being a full participant in a business-school community, and some readily admit to taking out extra loans to pay for it. The expense isn’t mandatory, of course, but they would rather shoulder it than risk being part of what was once described to me as “the Invisible 200,” that group of students who come to Booth and, socially speaking, fade away.
This is not to say that students are entirely satisfied with the moral logic of such consumption and, more so, that they are not wary of its limitless extension. In class, we discuss the wretched case of Rajat Gupta. From 1994 through 2003, Gupta was the director of McKinsey & Company, its first head to be born outside of the United States. Throughout his time atop the world’s most prestigious consulting firm, he was widely celebrated for a string of striking accomplishments, including expanding McKinsey into 23 new countries, doubling the number of partners, and growing revenue by 280 percent. Accordingly, Gupta was favored with the opportunities that come with being a successful corporate chieftain. During his tenure, he received invitations to serve in prestigious advisory roles at Wharton, the UN, and the Gates Foundation, and after he retired, companies such as Procter & Gamble, American Airlines, and Goldman Sachs all pursued him to join their boards of directors.
Given this remarkable series of accomplishments, not to mention the fact that he exited McKinsey worth an estimated $100 million, by any account Gupta had more than enough to be proud of—any account, that is, except his own. Now accustomed to rubbing shoulders with individuals for whom his net worth was a rounding error on their taxes, Gupta found himself chasing the rarefied standards of dignity established by his peers. “You have to watch out for it,” he told Columbia MBAs in 2004 of the allurements of this lifestyle, “because the more you have it, you get used to comforts, and you get used to, you know, big houses and vacation homes and going and doing whatever you want, and so it is very seductive. However much you say that you will not fall into the trap of it, you do fall into the trap of it.”
To afford the linen shirts of his elite community, Gupta set his own trap. A few years after his candid admission at Columbia, he began trading on the privileged information afforded him by his membership on so many blue-chip boards. A novice to such shady bustle, he was soon snared by an SEC investigation into Raj Rajaratnam. A hedge-fund manager whose insider-trading spree landed him an 11-year prison sentence, Rajaratnam found an eager coconspirator in Gupta, who aimed to join his billionaire boy’s club but followed him, instead, to federal prison.
Many students are haunted by the story of Gupta, for what preyed on his insecurities shadows them as well: the feeling that, notwithstanding so many accomplishments, he still could not afford to hold his head high. The fear is twofold. On the one hand, the linen shirts of the world to which they aspire are so wildly extravagant that to plan their professional lives in the hopes of attaining them is to chart a course to almost-certain despair. On the other hand, if the standard of dignity they embrace is actually less a material requirement than a relative measure—indeed, if money is merely a matter of keeping score—then they are committing themselves to living out a dreary dictum: in a room full of wealthy men, all but one feel poor by comparison.
And this brings us back to Bernie Sanders. More than any of the policies he has championed this election cycle, the most subversive thing about him is his very person. From his rumpled suits to his grandpa glasses to the corona of white hair he simply can’t be bothered with, one doesn’t have to see Bernie’s red Chevy to know that, whatever’s required to support his dignity, it’s less a matter of dollars than sense.
To get a better appreciation of what makes his behavior so remarkable, consider, by way of contrast, the private choice that has dogged Hillary Clinton more than any other this election cycle: her decision to return to the paid-speaking circuit after leaving the State Department. In the 11 months after her tenure as secretary of state ended, Clinton gave 41 paid speeches that earned her $9.68 million, part of the $153 million she and her husband took in for such services between 2001 and the spring of 2015, when she launched her second presidential bid.
Now, unless you believe that there is no meaningful difference between Bernie Madoff and Michael Bloomberg, we can agree that not all ways of making money are morally equivalent. And while the phenomenon of retired politicians trading on their public service is neither as uncommon nor as generally frowned upon as when President Reagan accepted $2 million for a “goodwill” visit to Japan months after he left office, the image of a former First Couple endlessly telling war stories in service of a bigger bank account still fills most Americans with mild despair. That consideration alone might have given Secretary Clinton pause; but a second, more pressing concern might have checked her ambition, namely that insofar as many of these speeches were paid for by hedge funds, private-equity groups, and investment banks, giving them would inevitably compromise her presidential run by making the promise she made to “go after all of Wall Street” seem, by turns, hypocritical and deceptive.
In the face of such objections, why might Secretary Clinton still have pressed ahead? Perhaps she reasoned that swapping a small amount of honor and electability for nearly $10 million is a trade-off so clearly compelling that the strongest defense is pretty simple: Who wouldn’t?
Of course, like all rhetorical questions, this one assumes what it seeks to demonstrate: that the claims of dignity consistent with an elite lifestyle are so ineluctable and obvious that basically any trade-off should be made in favor of them. To varying degrees, this seems the essence of Secretary Clinton’s risk calculus, and Gupta’s as well. And while it fundamentally resembles any trade-off we make between the outward flourishes of wealth and some incommensurable good—whether it be honor, peace of mind, leisure, or, in the case of my students, a little more debt and a lot more oatmeal—differences of degree still matter, for they can suggest the weighting is suspect.
These outward flourishes clearly matter quite little to Sanders, so much so that it suggests something subversive about him. By implicitly doubting the material requirements of dignity that increasingly seem self-evident to so many, he is calling attention to the growing distance between absolute necessities and, in Smithian parlance, the “necessaries of life” for the American elite.
As Adam Smith well appreciated, between those two points is where some of the most interesting disputes take shape. The requirements of barest subsistence are universal and largely uninteresting, a fact unchanged from Rodeo Drive to ancient Rome. But what exactly dignity requires, where and when our individual definitions diverge, and how our pursuits in service of that demanding master shape our preferences, our professions, and our politics—these are all matters very much worth debating. Indeed, they illuminate nothing less than the practical expression of a personal ethics: the trade-offs, day by day, we willingly make.
John Paul Rollert is adjunct assistant professor of behavioral science at Chicago Booth.
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